The breaking machines of today are different from those of even a few years ago. Governmental regulations are forcing manufacturers to change the way breakers are made, reducing vibrations felt by the operator and noise heard by those nearby. And new technologies are making breakers lighter and more powerful than ever before.

Handheld breakers are available with power supplied by hydraulics, pneumatics, electric motors, and gasoline engines. There are D-handled hammers for walls and overhead work or T-handled hammers for streets and slabs. Manufacturers also offer these tools in various weight classes.

Faced with such a broad spectrum of choices, choosing a breaker can be confusing. However, a simple review of the four basic power options is a first step to help you choose the right tool for the job.


Hydraulic breakers offer the highest power-to-weight ratio of any power system on the market. Their tremendous power output also means they are the most power efficient, getting the most work out of the available energy. This efficiency translates into lower fuel costs, service costs, and operating costs. Sometimes these breakers can piggyback off other hydraulic equipment, such as skidsteers, backhoes, and excavators.

A properly used and maintained hydraulic machine can last for a long time. However, they tend to be the most expensive types. So, where high-power output is required for tough demolition work or a large job, the hydraulic breaker is likely to be your best bet.

Chicago Pneumatic Tool

Pneumatic breakers are also durable machines, though not as powerful as their hydraulic counterparts. They are simpler tools with fewer moving parts, requiring less maintenance. Like hydraulic breakers, these tools require an external power source—in this case, an air compressor, which tends to be larger than a hydraulic model's power pack. In general, pneumatic breakers don't cost as much, particularly if the contractor already owns an air compressor for other purposes.

Electric breaking tools come in many sizes. Many D-handled models are electric, including chipping tools, rotary hammers, and combihammers. With the advent of lithium ion technology, manufacturers are making more cordless D-handled models. Choosing between these types of tools also depends on the job at hand.

“Electric-powered handheld breakers are best in portability, and rank very high for overall durability, maintenance, and upfront costs,” says Anthony Corwin, Makita's commercial and industrial product manager.

Some T-handled tools also are available in electric models. Electric tools have the advantage of being easy to work with. Just plug them in and begin. They are very portable and there is no compressor to drag around. In general electric machines are durable, though the cordless varieties tend not to be as durable as their corded counterparts.

Gasoline breakers' greatest benefit is probably their portability. They can be used almost anywhere outside, particularly where there are no other power sources.

Gas breakers are easy to store and transport. With no compressor or power pack, set up is quick and easy. They can be started literally within seconds, and often can be well into a job in the time that it takes to set up a pneumatic or hydraulic breaker.

The downside, of course, is that they are not suited for indoors or confined areas due to exhaust fumes. And on a cost per hour basis, they are the most expensive system due to the fuel costs. They also don't last as long as other types.

Although that may seem like a lot of drawbacks, gas breakers are the best choice for small jobs. When the time needed to finish the work is short, the portability and quick startup can make a real difference, even if the gas breaker may be slightly less powerful and take a few extra seconds to break through the concrete.

Matching Game

Armed with these basics, you can begin to properly match the breaker to the job. This is important because it can increase jobsite efficiency. Contractors don't want to waste time using a breaker that is too light for the job. That wasted time is wasted money. At the same time, a heavy breaker can be too powerful for some jobs, poking holes rather than fracturing a thin slab of concrete. This situation often requires more work rather than less to complete the job properly.

Mankita USA

When choosing the right size hand-held breaker, John Vogel, vice president of sales of Atlas Copco, says there is a simple rule of thumb: “If the operation takes longer than 20 seconds, the breaker is too light; if the operation takes less than 5 seconds, the breaker is too heavy.”

Another thing to consider is operator fatigue. Lugging around a 90-pound breaker will cause a worker to grow tired faster and actually may take longer to finish the same task as one working with a 60-pound model. For more power or endurance you can always move up to a small hyraulic hammer mounted on a skidsteer or mini-excavator.

If you still aren't sure which breaker is best for you, talk to your manufacturer or distributor about the specifications and conditions of your project.